Tag Archives: Jana Benova

Casting Aside your Morals

When I tell the French people I meet that I’m a writer, they often ask if I write in French.

‘No way,’ I say.

‘Why not?’ they ask. ‘You’re pretty much bilingual.’

That ‘pretty much’ is what has always stopped me. How can I possibly nuance my language, weave a subtext, hook the exact word I’m fishing for from the little pond of French I possess? Come on: it’s difficult enough to do this in my native English.


Me (copyright Christine West)

I have tried. A few years ago a literary friend invited me to her French creative writing workshop. When I eventually summed up my courage and went along, I discovered that it was a surprisingly stimulating experience.

Knowing I couldn’t expect any elegance from the French corner of my mind, I felt more liberated than in English workshops. My creations were basic but the ideas, associations and images flowed easily and naturally. By letting go of my language expectations I was able to focus more fully on the narrative.

Much as I enjoyed the other participants’ poetic prose, though, I was unable to write a satisfactory piece in French.

So I was intrigued to see the title ‘Why Write in a Different Language?’ featuring as one of the discussions at the European Literature festival in Cognac last November. I hurried along to listen to the panel of authors, who all write in non-native languages.

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

Vladimir Vertlib & interpreter Valérie Terrasson

There were two Slovak authors, Jana Benova (has written in Czech) and Irena Brezna (writes in German); a Czech writer, Lenka Hornakova-Civade (French); and the Russian writer Vladimir Vertlib (German). It turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking themes of the festival, and one that remains with me three months later.

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (coline-sentenac)

Lenka Hornakova-Civade (photo Coline Sentenac)

Lenka argued that your native language is one of emotion. In your mother tongue, the emotion surges out and grips you as you write. Writing in a different language, however, gives you the distance you need for the surgical precision of the job.

Jana Beňová (Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana Beňová (photo Tomáš Benedikovič)

Jana agreed that when writing, you’re searching for the clearest way of communicating, and suggested that this distance can also be achieved in terms of letting time pass or writing in a different location.

Vladimir talked about dogs: when he says his native Russian word for ‘dog’, he can smell and feel the animal. But when he says the word in German, there is a space between the word and the feeling. This made me think how feeble the French swear words sound to me, compared to the strength of English ones. Now I know why.

Irena Brezna & Lenka

Irena Brezna & Lenka

There’s also a freedom in writing in a different language, according to Irena. She’s sometimes horrified when she reads her German work once it’s translated into her native Slovak: not because of bad translation, but because she’s shocked to think she could have written those things. The distance she felt when writing in German is lacking when she reads her translated words in her native language.

Jana confirmed this and quoted the results of an interesting study. Apparently, when you use your mother tongue you respect your morals, whereas you morally let go of yourself in a foreign language.

You have been warned, Ex-pats. No casting aside of your morals here, please.

The panel also explored the difference between translating into a different language and writing in that language.

At the time of the Cognac festival, Lenka was in the process of translating a French work into her native Czech. She pointed out that when translating you must respect what is written rather than interpreting the author’s intention. The result of her translation, both in terms of sonority and meaning, didn’t resemble what she would have written in Czech.

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir Vertlib

Vladimir put himself firmly on the writer side of the fence for this very reason, admitting that he would be tempted to rewrite rather than translate.

He brought the discussion back to the freedom of a non-native language, saying that you actually re-invent a language when you adopt it: you create your own nuances that enrich your use of it.

Lenka suggested this is because you don’t have the codes you learn from growing up in a language. And Irena added that German readers have told her that her use of German is more beautiful than native German.

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

Jana Benova & interpreter Diana Jamborova-Lemay

I particularly liked Jana’s reference to Samuel Beckett – an Irish writer who lived in France and wrote in French. He apparently said that he knew English too well to write in this language.

Who knows? Perhaps, one day, I will know English so well that I’ll be able to write in French! Though with over a quarter of a million distinct words in the English language, there’s still a way to go.

And, to be honest, I like writing in English. I like the way it keeps me in touch with my origins.

If you’d like to read more about other writers who write in non-native languages, there’s an article on the Telegraph website here

(Photos courtesy of Littératures Européennes and Lycée Jean Monnet’s photography club)

When Danube meets Charente

dscn0720Last night I met a river. A deep, contemplative river of a person, just like the River Charente as it idles through Cognac.

She is, of course, a writer – and not just any old writer: she’s the 2012 EU Literature prizewinner, Jana Beňová.

Qualifying letters normally tack onto a name, but Jana’s tag, the one which open doors for her, is a prefix. It heralds, in a triumph of trumpets, the Slovakian name that follows; a name few English-language readers would recognise. It introduces her. It stamps value on her work. It instructs us to take her career seriously. And it advises residency hosts that by inviting her to write in their community, they will be rendering a service to Culture (yes, with a capital C).

Cognac’s Littératures Européennes association has taken heed of that advice. During October and November Jana is breathing in the balmy Cognac air and breathing out poetry onto paper. She’s the first guest in the new, annual Jean Monnet residency, which coincides with the literary festival from 17th to 20th November.

Foto N - Tomáš Benedikovič

Foto N – Tomáš Benedikovič

Jana is a 42-year-old poet and novelist with a degree in dramaturgy. She was a journalist for a Slovakian daily newspaper for 7 years and has published poetry, short story collections and novels since 1993. Her novel Seeing People Off, subtitled Café Hyena, won the EU prize.

Café Hyène, as it is called in French, is a distinctive work of art. It follows the activities of a group of literary friends in the run-down Petržalka district of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Not only is the language captivating, the storyline is original: it shows the lives of Petržalka citizens in poetic, philosophical bursts, like fireworks.

You won’t have seen this novel in English (why not, for goodness sake?). It will only be available in May 2017, published by indie American publisher Two Dollar Radio. I’d definitely recommend the slim volume: it’s the kind of book you can read several times and still discover something new and thought-provoking each time you open it.

I was lucky enough to be Jana’s interpreter when she arrived in Cognac and addressed the general public. She speaks great English, though little French (just enough to order what she likes to eat and drink). It was my first experience of interpreting and, apart from telling the audience that her favourite activity was working – instead of walking (oops!) – I found it to be an interesting, though intense, challenge.

Jana loves the town of Cognac, which, she says, should be perfect for ageing her work into a VSOP or an XO. When I met her in a wine bar for a chat, she told me how the river brings a sense of raison d’être to a place – much like the Danube in Bratislava. She regularly walks along the River Charente, admiring the golden autumnal light and continuing her writing process in her head. She’s not a writer who sits at a desk and churns out words. She needs time to contemplate things, to let her mind create as she wanders. This is why swimming is one of her favourite activities.

dscn0716She can’t note the ideas she has while swimming, but is confident that she’ll remember them. When she walks, she always takes notes. I told her how I record my ideas on my telephone when I’m running – even though it can be difficult to hear my recorded words through my puffing. But recording speech doesn’t work for Jana. There’s something in writing that pushes you forward, she says. This doesn’t happen when you speak.

It’s this need to continue being ‘in’ her fiction even when she’s not at her desk that led Jana to stop her work as a journalist: she says you need to be fully present as a journalist, which you can’t do if you’re writing fiction or poetry.

Winning the EU Prize for Literature hasn’t changed Jana’s career path, although it helped financially and has been especially useful in attracting translations. Jana has read books from all over the world, and as a writer she longed to be part of the world literature scene. For a Slovakian writer using a language read by only 5 million people, getting translated is as important as getting published. Of course, EU Literature prizewinner also sounds good!

The prizewinning Café Hyena has a deliberately disjointed style. It isn’t necessarily Jana’s only style – indeed, she didn’t decide to write it in this way. When she starts writing a piece, she’s not fully sure of what it is. She constantly asks herself where it’s going in terms of style, structure and narrator. Then, after some time, it opens and shows her the way. She says the style comes from the body of the piece, so her new work will be different to Café Hyena because she feels she has finished her journey into this style.

dscn0712The Jean Monnet residency is the moment for Jana to bring together the ideas for her next oeuvre and set them down on paper. Yes, on paper. She finds the physical act of combining pen and paper important in the writing process, and regrets that screens have replaced typewriters.

Residencies are useful because they allow her time to live alone and write; time during which she doesn’t have to do any other work. Writers need to be alone. The best way to be alone without being lonely, according to Jana, is to sit in a café.

Of course, writers need to see people too, and Jana’s schedule includes visits to local towns each week to meet the Charente public. This brings the balance that is key to Jana’s lifestyle – another being the city / country balance. Big cities are great for a short time, but then she needs to come to a country town for the serenity. Even her choice of home is a balance, as she alternates between Spain and Hungary. The building in which Jana writes is important to her too. Luckily, she feels at home in the 200-year-old residency house in Cognac, and likes the sense of other people having lived there.

Writing isn’t just the act of writing, she says: it’s all about living. And when you want to write, you will do anything to combine the two. She owns nothing and has no money saved for retirement – but as long as she’s writing, she is free and open and unafraid.

dscn0732Thanks to the Jean Monnet residency, Jana is gathering her Cognac thoughts, ageing them and writing. We will all benefit from what I’m sure will be a complex, mellow XO blend.

Come and meet her at the Salamandre conference centre in Cognac on Saturday 19th and Sunday 20th November at 10am.

British Authors in Cognac

You did ask nicely, didn’t you?

In that case, as promised last month, I’ll tell you everything I know about Cognac’s forthcoming literature festival (Littératures Européennes, 17th–20th November 2016). Well, some of what I know. I’ll take questions afterwards.

Littératures Européennes is all about Europe (you know, the family us British are preparing to exit) rather than all about books. The aim is to explore European culture through literature. What I didn’t understand, in previous years, is that preparation actually begins months beforehand with the selection of the contending books.

The festival makes much more sense if you’re aware of the books shortlisted for the prizes, even more so if you take the time to read them. One of the conditions for a book to be selected is that the author must be present at the festival. So before reading a book, you know you’ll be able to meet the person who wrote it. This is particularly interesting for us English speakers – and an oasis in the literary desert for any non-French speakers living in France.

In February, the shortlisted novels for the big ‘Jean Monnet’ prize, chosen by France’s literary intellectuals, are announced. The shortlisted novels for the ‘Prix des Lecteurs’, voted by the region’s libraries, are announced in April. And in May/June, the books shortlisted for the school prizes are announced: the ‘Prix Jean Monnet des Jeunes Européens’ for lycées and the ‘Prix ALE!’ (Adolescents, Lecteurs et Européens!) for secondary schools. Other prizes are privately funded, such as the ‘Prix Bouchon de cultures’ and the ‘Prix Club Soroptimist’.

So, how can we find out what’s been shortlisted? The website is a good start. Even better is to go to the public presentation evening at the beginning of September to hear the festival organisers’ summaries (in French) of their favourite books. Or to go to the professional ‘Lire l’Europe’ event at the end of September (more about this in my next post).

If you can’t make these dates, the next best thing is to read about them – here, for example, bearing in mind that I may be hiding things from you, or exaggerating where it pleases me, or–

OK, OK, I’ll stop waffling and get on with my rough guide to the festival.

affiche-20162Here’s the poster, with its enigmatic ‘Délier les langues’ title. To save you scrabbling through your dictionaries, this could be translated as ‘Loosening Tongues’. Of course, in French, the word ‘langue’ refers both to language and the tongue…hence the (arresting, in my opinion) photo of the young lady sticking out her tongue. Shame it’s not pierced – that would be even more arresting. It’s a great poster, isn’t it? I like the way it focuses on a person, not on books.

The poster, which was unveiled (or rather, which fell off the wall while the public were taking their seats) on 8th September, refers to the way literature can help understand other languages or cultures; how writing can untie the knots caused by political taboos or childhood secrets; and how writers, particularly eastern Europeans, manage to write in languages other than their own.

You’ll also see the reference to 5 countries on the poster. The festival usually celebrates one country in particular – or one town (last year it was London, as I reported here). This year, marked by the celebrations for Cognac’s 1000th anniversary, the organisers have chosen to honour books from the European countries in which Cognac’s twin towns are situated.

What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the contending books not only come from Germany, Scotland, Spain, France and Slovakia, but that only the young generation of writers were considered. I’m not going to list all the books selected: you can find these on the website. I’ll just mention the ones written by English speakers.

Firstly, Jenni Fagan – named by Granta as one of the best young British novelists –  has been shortlisted for the Prix des Lecteurs with her book The Panopticon (in French La Sauvage). Unfortunately Jenni can’t come to the festival.

Secondly, we have Andrew O’Hagan, shortlisted for the Prix Bouchon for his book The Illuminations, alongside Barry Gornell‘s The Healing of Luther Grove. Andrew and Barry should both be at the festival, hopefully going into schools as well as meeting the general public. Andrew O’Hagan, renowned novelist and journalist, has won many awards for his work, including being on the Booker shortlist for Our Fathers. Barry Gornell is a novelist and screenwriter living in Scotland. Click on the links to find out more about them and their work.

A final word for Jana Benova, an English-speaking, Slovakian poet and novelist, who is in residence at Cognac during October and November. Her novel Café Hyène is only available in French at the moment, although it will soon be available in English as Seeing People Off. Winner of the EU Prize for Literature, she’ll be taking part in the festival and will also be present in several Poitou-Charentes towns in October and November. First comes Cognac on 6th October 2016. See the Littératures Européennes website for details.

The full festival programme, which includes round tables, exhibitions, workshops and film projections, will be available in mid-October. In the meantime, visit your local bookshops, such as the Le Texte Libre in Cognac or Livres et Vous in Ruffec, and order your books from the friendly staff there.